The Constitutional Principle: Separation of Church and State
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Controversy relating to school prayer in the United States


The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1962, in Engel v. Vitale, that official organization, sponsorship, or endorsement of school prayer is forbidden by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution in public school. Teachers and school officials may not lead classes in prayer, but prayer is permitted at voluntary religious clubs, and students are not prohibited from praying themselves. Other rulings have forbidden public, organized prayer at school assemblies, sporting events, and similar school-sponsored activities.

Public moments of silence in the United States both arise from and contribute to this debate over prayer and the separation of church and state. A moment of silence lacks any specific religious formulation, and therefore it has been presented as a way of creating reflection and respect without endorsing any particular sect.

President Ronald Reagan was a supporter of a moment of silence in American schools. In 1981 Reagan formally proposed a constitutional amendment permitting organized prayer in public schools.[7] In his 1984 state of the union address, Reagan asked congress, who begin their day with an invocation: "If you can begin your day with a member of the clergy standing right here leading you in prayer, then why can't freedom to acknowledge God be enjoyed again by children in every schoolroom across this land?"[8] The Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Shnnerson was a strong advocate of a moment of silence every morning in public schools. Citing the many polls as proof that it reduces crime. Colin Powell, a longtime advocate, has recommended a simple moment of silence at the start of each school day. Further, he states that students could use this interval to pray, meditate, contemplate or study.[9]

However, critics often view the moment of silence as publicly endorsing prayer "in disguise". This issue has been especially raised by atheists groups and advocates, who argue that no non-religious purpose is served by designating an official moment of silence.[citation needed] They point out, for example, that many schools have entire class periods dedicated to silent study, which can equally be used for silent prayer or meditation.[citation needed] Moments of silence point to the tension in the U.S. Constitution and society between accommodation and endorsement. Accommodation of religion is to ensure an environment where a person or student can practice their religion. A question with "moments of silence" laws is whether accommodation was already achieved by the fact that a student can pray or meditate on his/her own without an official moment of silence. Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation said, on a "moment of silence" case, "Students were already allowed to pray, meditate, or reflect under the statute before it was amended. The addition of the word 'pray' where it wasn't needed clearly shows that legislators intended to promote religion, and that's not their job."[10] Courts have stated on these moments of silence cases that a secular purpose is necessary and according to Wallace v. Jaffree, a "statute must be invalidated if it is entirely motivated by a purpose to advance religion."[11]

Although since 1976 the state Virginia law permitted school districts to implement 60 seconds of silence at the start of each school day,[12] in 1985, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that an Alabama "moment of silence or voluntary prayer" law was unconstitutional, in the case Wallace v. Jaffree. In April 2000, a new law came into being; requiring all Virginian public school students to observe a moment of silence.[1] Also, in 2005, a law was passed in Indiana requiring all public schools to give students a chance to say the pledge of allegiance and observe a moment of silence every day.[citation needed] In October 2007, Illinois enacted legislation to require public schools to provide students with a moment of silence at the start of the school day, a statute that is currently being challenged in Illinois state courts. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia also require such moments of quiet in the classroom. In more than 20 other states, teachers are allowed to decide whether they want such a classroom time-out.

In October 2000, the U.S. District Judge Claude M. Hilton ruled that the "moment of silence" law was constitutional.[1][13] Judge Hilton stated, "The court finds that the Commonwealth's daily observance of one minute of silence act is constitutional. The act was enacted for a secular purpose, does not advance or inhibit religion, nor is there excessive entanglement with religion... Students may think as they wish and this thinking can be purely religious in nature or purely secular in nature. All that is required is that they sit silently."[14] His ruling was upheld in the 4th circuit.[15][16] There is disagreement though with the law being enacted though for a secular purpose because of statements made by supporters of the legislation. State Senator Charles R. Hawkins (R-Pennsylvania) stated the moment of silence is "a very small measure to address a very large problem." He also said, "Prayer is not a bad word in my vocabulary." Kent Willis, Executive Director of the ACLU of Virginia, stated lawmakers are "at the very least placing Virginia law right on the line of separation of church and state or they are crossing it . . . the state is playing with fire here."[17]

The American Civil Liberties Union was opposed to a proposed constitutional amendment by Newt Gingrich in the early 1990s which would have set aside a voluntary moment of prayer during the school day, which was later independently described by President Bill Clinton as a "moment of silence". They considered this stealth endorsement of prayer in school.




(10) Page not found

(11) "Wallace V. Jaffree". Retrieved 2012-07-15

See the 3 Wallace v Jafree Cases further down in the section of this website along with the Rebuttal.

(12) Code of Virginia 22.1203". Retrieved 2012-11-1

(13) Page not found

(14)Court upholds constitutionality of 'silence' law", Baptist Joint Committee. Report from the Capital, 2000-NOV-7, Page 3.

(15)Page not found

(16)"U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals: Brown v. Gilmore" (PDF). July 24, 2001

(17)Virginia Senate OKs Schools' Moment of Silence". February 1, 2000. Retrieved 2012-07-15.

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